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When winning isn't everything

Dr. Amy Bass
Courtesy of Dr. Amy Bass
Amy Bass

I launched a new seminar last spring entitled Sport Stories — a course devoted to how we make meaning, tell stories, about sport. Some of the stories we studied, like John Branch’s epic Pulitzer Prize winning piece “Snowfall” — a multimedia telling of the avalanche at Tunnel Creek in 2012 — changed the way we think about how to convey the answer to the question “what happened,” with aerial video, interactive graphics, and moving images accompanying Branch’s always affecting prose. Others, like Buzz Bissinger’s classic Friday Night Lights, gave us the opportunity to talk across mediums — narrative nonfiction writing, television, film — alongside themes of education, racism, and poverty.

The course sat well with students, who produced some of their own writing along the way, and moved us beyond the game itself. One of the things I find critical to understand in this moment of instant online gratification — we have access to everything everywhere all at once, from stats to scores, highlights to bloopers — is that we still need to tell the story. Perusing box scores, whether on the phone or in the morning paper, tells us who won and who lost, who hit the home run and who struck out, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us the story.

Sport, as I constantly tell my students, isn’t a zero-sum game. Whether a winner or a loser, a benchwarmer or a star, a player or a fan, everyone walks away from the competition with something. This reasoning flies in the face of those who ardently believe that sports are not only a zero-sum game, but are the ultimate example of a zero-sum game — the literal definition of what it means: winning is everything and the only thing. But my goodness: how dull would sport be if that were the case, with no net benefit for anyone but the victor?

I thought about this a lot last week, “championship week” at Manhattanville College, where I teach this course on sport stories. All four of the college’s winter teams — men’s and women’s basketball and hockey —nabbed home advantage for the start of the postseason. It gave us, the college community, a thrilling and exhausting week, with electrifying crowds filling Kennedy Gymnasium as both basketball squads made it to the championship game, and both hockey teams earned trips upstate to Utica for the semifinal rounds.

Full disclosure — I ducked out of a faculty assembly meeting to head to the Rye Ice Casino to see the women win in overtime and I have not a shred of a doubt that if I hadn’t done that, we truly don’t know how that would’ve gone down.

And then Saturday happened: all four teams fell — basketball in the championship games, and hockey in the penultimate matches. But the scores of those games —some crushing, and some so close it’s hard to believe it didn’t happen — just don’t tell the whole story.

Those scores don’t tell the story of the guy on the bench, someone who didn’t see a second of play in the postseason, break into a grin so big after the semifinal win that I thought it was going to break his face. The scores didn’t show the beautiful breakaway by the star scorer on the women’s hockey team in their eventual loss, with skating so strong and yet so smooth, it took my breath away. And the scores definitely did not show how the athletes with an assignment due in my Sport Ethics class in the midst of it all not only got their papers in, but did them early, just to be sure.

Tennis fans know better than most just how little the score can tell us about what happened, the sketchiest of sport in this way because game totals don’t show. Every single game in a straight set match, each set at 6-0, seemingly a blowout, could have gone to deuce, but the score doesn’t tell us that. It won’t tell us about the fatigue across a match, or the handshake and quick embrace at the end. The hotly debated blowout score of the U.S. Women’s National Team over Thailand in 2019 — a brutal 13 to 0 — didn’t show us the consolation hugs and deep conversations that took place on the pitch after.

Don’t get me wrong: scoring is important. While I appreciate youth leagues that don’t score, keeping the focus on the players and their growing skills, I’m not much for participation medals (or kindergarten graduation caps and gowns or any of that nonsense). Get everyone ice cream, sure: good job kids — onto the next! — but no one needs a trophy just for showing up. Scoring is part of the rules, and the rules are what differentiate sport from play, even at the most beginning levels. But the scores aren’t the story.

So, when student-athletes come to talk after a big loss — and a star of the men’s basketball team was in my office to get some paperwork signed on the Monday morning after the championship defeat — we talk about lots of things — tactics and strategies, formations and substitutions, noisy fans and bad refs, good trainers and bad injuries, post-game meals and, sometimes, what comes next. But we almost never talk about the score.

Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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